Sunday, 11 September 2016

Dreaming of evangelism

Despite having been embedded in the rural church for 6 years I still dream about "successful evangelistic programmes".

I realise this sentence needs a lot of what is trendily called unpacking.

First of all what is 'the rural church'? Rural is a bit of a 'catch all' phrase and much of what passes for rural is not very. Rural might not necessarily mean one working farm and a church in a tiny hamlet (that really would be the rural church) but 'rural' does imply a lot of pretty countryside. And when you have a lot of pretty countryside, you have expensive housing, for which a healthy salary may well be required. So the rural church might just as soon be a 'mixed commuter village' and it might therefore be near a station and a hub of shops and services, like the one I live in. So the answer to the question 'what kind of evangelism do rural churches do?' must have something to do with the context, as it always does. 

Because wisdom has it that the church 'does evangelism' differently in the rural set up. So I probably need to give up my dream of big evangelistic programmes, which may be a false one anyway. And yet...

There seem to be a number of reasons for thinking differently about evangelism in the (small) rural church. Firstly the style in rural/central ministry is to remain fairly close to the seasonal/liturgical year - it's the effect of all that countryside and our big gardens I think. 

So when we're looking for opportunities for sharing the Good News do we really need a 'programme', or are we more likely to look to Harvest, Remembrance, Christmas, and other seasonal times in which to share the message? Because we're supposed to be more tied to the seasons in the countryside. Though if you're upwardly mobile and can travel, you might be a village dweller who's nonetheless oblivious to harvest and who's no more likely to feel the need for church at harvest festival time, than someone living in the large town down the road. Mixed villages contain those who may not have grown up in the countryside as well as those who have, but even those who've lived in the countryside many years may have drifted away from the need to include God in the marking of time. So where does that leave rural evangelism?

Secondly, another factor in middle of the road/rural churchmanship is that the need for outreach/evangelism/sharing faith needs to be gently negotiated, and not assumed. The very fact that people are more likely to know each other in a smaller dwelling place means that calling out distinctions between those in the church and those outside is not seen as strictly necessary. After all, we're all in the same community together; some go to church a lot, some a bit and some not all. What's the problem? Is there any need to think about who might or might not be a believer? And yet, if we're all in the same boat, where does that leave evangelism, the fundamental challenge of Christ, to make disciples of all people groups?

Things are complex in the happily mixed middle. One meets plenty of people who are in fact quite 'connected' to their local church in their own minds ("the church is important in the community", "it's our church", "you're our vicar") whereas many who are actually physically there most Sundays may talk about a much closer link between belonging, belief and collective worship. What in fact is the connection? That you can be 'Christian' without ever connecting the word knowingly to the word 'Christ', is a strongly held position for a number of non church-goers, and so there's a need to clarify terms. But who owns the term 'Christian'?

Finally, evangelistic approaches may have something to do with numbers. There are fewer volunteers in very small congregations, so the 'manpower' needed to host, say, a 10 week course, with meal, IT projection, training beforehand, follow up afterwards, can seem overwhelming. In a previous large-ish church I attended, in a town, the expectation for evangelistic programmes was such that the Curate not only led every session of The Alpha Course, but also wrote all his own talks, even though he could have used the filmed material on offer. The meal was cooked by an army of older ladies, the hall set up every single week with chairs and tables, there were multiple group leaders, and even paid-for babysitting, so young parents could attend. The vicar didn't even need to turn up. This is the content of my dream in fact...

I hope my dream of evangelism doesn't entirely fade, though it may have to be re-imagined. Because if you aim for nothing, you generally hit it. I think what it boils down to is equipping the people of God for the mission of God. However, as the saying goes - not a particularly well chosen one, for my profession, perhaps - the devil is in the detail.

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